The independent news organization of Duke University


Rivers is Duke’s best shot at a Final Four

Rivers is averaging 14.4 points per game, but that number may rise as he assimilates into the Duke offense.
Rivers is averaging 14.4 points per game, but that number may rise as he assimilates into the Duke offense.

A watery-eyed Austin Rivers slumped off the court on Saturday after Duke lost 76-73 to Florida State at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The heralded recruit had just sliced through the Seminole defense to put home an off-balance layup with six seconds remaining, tying the game at 73. Only moments later, it felt all for naught as he watched from across the paint when Michael Snaer drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, ending the Blue Devils’ 45-game home winning streak.

For the Cameron Crazies—many of whom had never experienced a loss in Cameron—this was a sad ending, made even more tragic after Rivers had knotted it up, seemingly sending the game to overtime.

Orson Welles, however, once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

Saturday’s story ended sadly. What Austin Rivers showed in those final moments, though, is that he has what it takes to make it a happy ending for Duke fans in March.

“We will only get better by being in games like this,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the team’s loss. “Having it take something out of you then having to execute is part of how you win championships. The only way you do that is the experience of being in these games.”

As talented as this year’s team has shown it can be, the team has been without a go-to scorer. Rivers is the only player on the team that can be that player. Mason Plumlee is a threat in the post, Andre Dawkins can be lights-out from beyond the arc, Seth Curry is a skilled game manager and Ryan Kelly quietly contributes every game.

None of them can create the way Rivers can. Perhaps this game, or even that shot, was the moment where he blossoms into Duke’s go-to threat.

“That bucket he got right at the end was something I don’t know he would have scored three weeks ago,” Krzyzewski said. “You have to really be determined to get in there and make the decision to shoot it­—which was the good decision.”

With 14.4 points per game, the 6-foot-4 guard is the Blue Devils’ leading scorer on the season. But that does not tell the entire story of how he has struggled adjusting to the college game.

In Rivers’ first five games of 2012, he displayed no offensive rhythm, averaging just 8.6 points on 36-percent shooting. In the next game, Duke’s 91-73 win over Wake Forest, Rivers began the game on the bench for the first time all season.

Message sent, and message delivered.

He played a team-high 32 minutes against the Demon Deacons notching 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting. In his return to the lineup against Florida State, he registered a team-high 19 points including the clutch layup.

Despite Rivers’ struggles and despite his youth, head coach Mike Krzyzewski put the ball in his hands at the end of the game. And, that says something.

“It was an older guys’ game [more] than a younger guys’ game” Krzyzewski said. “Although, I thought Austin did a good job, a really good job.”

Every great Duke squad has had at least one player who could be counted on for a score when the team needed it. But of the 11 teams Krzyzewski has taken to the Final Four, none have had a leading scorer with an average as low as Rivers’.

The ’86 team had Johnny Dawkins while the ’88 and ’89 ones were the peaks of the Danny Ferry era. In ’90, Phil Henderson led the way to a championship loss before Christian Laettner and Grant Hill took the team to two consecutive titles in ’91 and ’92.

Hill stayed for the runner-up team in ’94, and after five years Elton Brand brought the team back to the championship game in ’99. Jay Williams and Shane Battier paced the team toward the ’01 championship banner, and the ’04 runner-ups were the second year of J.J. Redick’s time in blue.

When the Blue Devils last won in 2010, Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith had all developed into elite scoring threats, each averaging more than 17 points per game.

Rivers has the potential to be just as good as or better than many of those names that now are revered with greatness. He has not been great yet, but that layup, in the crushing loss, showed Duke has the potential for a happy ending this year.

“You lose like that,” Rivers said, “if you’re not motivated, you shouldn’t be playing basketball.”


Share and discuss “Rivers is Duke’s best shot at a Final Four” on social media.